It sounds like the campiest thing since J. Edgar Hoover. Adrienne Barbeau, scream movie queen and Broadway’s first Rizzo, stars in a one-woman account of Judy Garland’s life, set in Garland’s dressing room on the night of her very last concert. And there are certainly times when “The Property Known as Garland” camps it up, with Barbeau sloshing around in a feather-coated pantsuit, clutching a bottle of pills and screaming she was glad when Busby Berkeley went insane. Those flourishes, though, never quite satisfy, since the play only dabbles in excess before shifting to another of its many tones.
Though it has a capable star, “Garland” ultimately lacks a point of view. Instead, director Glenn Casale and scribe Billy Van Zandt (Barbeau’s husband) court every perceived audience for their material.
Sometimes we hear a beyond-the-grave echo of “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” with Garland delivering corny jokes and light-hearted anecdotes about her showbiz pals. The humor is lame — “I was obese!,” we’re told. “That’s O. Henry’s second cousin” — and Barbeau is uncomfortable with the rhythms of cabaret patter. Her awkward timing and repetitive, sing-song delivery keep these “intimate” moments feeling stiff.
Fortunately, thesp loosens up when the production veers toward self-pity. Allowed to rage against her unloving mother, the callous studio system and the burdens of fame, Barbeau taps some fierce anger that’s thrilling to watch. She also gives her malice a playful edge while tormenting Ed (Kerby Joe Grubb), the stage manager who occasionally pops in to meet her ridiculous pre-show demands.
To its credit, the production doesn’t downplay its nasty side. We see the star as a childish, needy bitch who nevertheless blames everyone she knows for making her feel so sorry for herself. Barbeau doesn’t take her frenzy to “Mommie Dearest” heights, so these displays make the character strident and pathetic instead of laughably over-the-top.
If it stayed in that harsh place, the show could leave auds with uncomfortable, worthwhile questions about the distance between stage life and real life. But the production diminishes its blemished heroine by telling us how to understand her faults.
Namely, we’re meant to pity her. Her monologue is often interrupted by voiceovers from the past that ham-handedly prove she suffers. “You’re a hunchback,” screams the voice of Louis B. Mayer, or her mother chimes in to tell her she’s no good. Furthermore, everyone keeps referencing the play’s title, lest we forget that Garland was treated like property.
When Barbeau makes her final exit, bathed in harsh spotlights and crying, “You’ll never know this kind of love, Mama … (The crowd) loves me!,” we’re meant to ache for a girl who got abused by fame and only found love from strangers.
We should, of course, be trusted to evaluate this character ourselves, but it’s hard when she’s such a muddle. Not quite campy shrew, not quite suffering victim, not quite the girl next door, this may be the only version of Judy Garland that fails to make an impression.